This wiki topic is initially populated with a bunch of items gleaned over the years from various iNaturalist discussion threads. I made it a Tutorial and attempted to word it with an eye toward newer users as the main audience. Many of the issues addressed here seem to pop up repeatedly, and I think everyone could benefit from having them pulled together in one place.
Please keep in mind that the intended emphasis is on general etiquette and best practices, not on the technical details of specific identification issues. You will notice that I intentionally stayed away from the weeds of DQAs (Data Quality Assessments), and when they should and shouldn’t be used.
That said, I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything that a newer user should know on this topic, and maybe I’m off base on some of the initial suggestions too. This is a wiki so that we can discuss, add, and refine as much as possible, toward the goal of eventually adding a topic like this to the Help pages:
Identification Etiquette on iNaturalist
1. Be Bold. If you think you know what something is, say so! That’s what the iNaturalist community process is all about (among many other things). Note that the tab for IDs is called “Suggest an Identification.”
- Not sure, but have some ideas? Leaving those ideas in a comment instead can still be helpful. Or you can just come back to the observation later, or mark it as “reviewed” and move on.
2. Disagree agreeably, and with evidence. If your Suggested ID disagrees with an existing ID, it helps to briefly note your evidence or other reasons in a comment, so the observer knows where you are coming from with your disagreement.
- Suggestion: in any response comment, @ tag the user name(s) you are responding to, in case they have turned off automatic notifications on that observation.
3. You don’t have to know which species.
- Adding finer IDs - if you can help get the ID to a finer level, please do. For example, if the current ID is “Plant,” and you are sure it is a conifer tree, but don’t know which one, just ID it as a conifer. iNaturalist lets you ID at any level.
Adding coarser IDs - in general, if finer-level IDs already exist on an observation, only add a coarser ID if you intend to disagree, and/or think that there is not enough evidence to support the finer ID. Again, you should say why in the comments.
- Be sure to read any description and previous comments first. Sometimes an observer will have recorded notes about features that are not visible in the photographs, which may be important to the identification.
4. Be accepting of suggestions from others. Assume good intentions - there are many different experience levels, personalities, nationalities, and languages on iNaturalist. If you disagree with a suggestion, do so in a comment: politely and with evidence. Much good conversation and learning often happens during the community ID process, for users of all experience levels. Keeping it civil helps.
5. Avoid automatically agreeing with someone else’s ID, just because they said so. Consider doing a little research first. One easy check is to right click on the name or thumbnail of the suggested ID, and visit the page for that taxon. Check especially the Map tab, the Similar Species tab, and the existing photos. Do these seem consistent with the observation? You could also look at the taxon pages for some of the other suggestions that come up automatically in a blank ID box. Or you can just wait for more community members to weigh in first.
6. Be careful using the automatic suggestions. In a few (and growing) areas of the world, the suggestions are amazingly good, and getting better every day as more observations are added. But in many parts of the world, there are too little data yet for reliable suggestions. But iNaturalist will always give you a suggestion, even if it’s from the wrong continent, so use caution.
7. View all photos in the observation before adding an ID. They can help solidify your ID. Or, you might encounter one of these situations:
- Single photo shows multiple species. If it’s not clear which species is the focus, did the observer leave a provisional ID, or say in a comment or description which organism they are focusing on? If not, you can either leave a comment and ask which species they want identified, or leave an ID for one of them, and describe in a comment which one you are identifying. You can change or withdraw your ID later if they respond that they meant a different species.
- Different photos show different species. This sometimes happens with new users who are still learning how iNaturalist works. For this situation it is best to leave a comment suggesting that they make separate observations for each species. Some boilerplate comment language can be found here, but feel free to make it more friendly and personal.
8. Getting more ID help
- Give it your best shot first. Even if you can get it into a broad “bin” like Birds, Plants, Butterflies, etc., that will make it much easier for knowledgeable identifiers to find. Even if you are not sure, this is better than leaving it as “Unknown.” If you put it in the wrong “bin”, someone should at least be able to put it in the right one for you.
- If you are still not getting any ID help, recruit someone. You can add a request in a comment and @ tag another iNat user you think might be able to help. Unless you are already familiar with the user’s preferences, do this sparingly, so it doesn’t seem like you are “spamming” them with too many requests. At bottom right of an observation page you will see who the top 10 identifiers are for the current ID “bin” of your observation. Those are possibilities to try. (But see discussion here for some further caveats.) Just remember that the top identifiers, by definition, do a huge amount of volunteer ID work on iNaturalist, and may or may not have time to respond. If you don’t hear from them after a week or two, try someone else on the list.
9. Some observations are not identifiable. Understand that different kinds of life have different characteristics that separate species, and these are not always apparent in photographs (or other evidence), especially blurry ones.
- A good identifier will leave a comment about the missing information they need before they can make an ID. Don’t take this as personal criticism, they are just documenting their assessment, and helping you learn what to focus on next time you see that organism, or ones like it. If you have more photographs of the same organism at the same place and time, definitely add those to the same observation (don’t make new ones), and @ tag the identifier to let them know. The additional views may help. Or if you have separate observations from different dates, include the links to those in the description or in a comment.
- In general, the more different views of the organism you can get – whole organism and close-ups of different parts, from side, top, bottom, rear, front, etc. – the more likely it can be identified. Good sharp focus also helps – it’s worth taking the time to learn the details of how your autofocus or manual focus works.
- For some groups, it may simply be impossible to identify finer than, say, Genus or Family from photographic evidence. Don’t be discouraged – every observation still helps! At least researchers will know where and what time of year to go find what you saw, and who to contact if they have questions.
- If an observation can’t be identified to species, and you (or the community) thinks the current ID is “as good as it can be,” there is a question at the bottom of the observation page, “Based on the evidence, can the Community ID still be confirmed or improved?” This should be set to “No” in this circumstance.
10. What if I can’t find the right name for my ID? Not all published names have yet been added to iNaturalist. Or you may only be able to find a synonym of the name you want to use.
- If you found a synonym and can accept it for your ID, then please use it. Otherwise…
- Look up the next higher taxon (genus, family, etc.), or the synonym, at https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa, and go to the taxon page for that name.
- Under Curation, select “Flag for Curation” and leave a short reason like “GenusA speciesB missing” or “synonym of GenusX speciesY” and click “Flag It!”
- If you have more detail to add (strongly encouraged), you will see a link to the flag you just created near the top of your screen. Open it back up and leave a comment in the comment box with the details.
- NOTE: with some exceptions, out of practical necessity iNaturalist only follows a single “Taxonomic Framework” for each major group of organisms worldwide. If you are wanting to use a different synonym, and it conflicts with the adopted framework, and you believe the name currently used in the framework should be rejected, you will need to provide whatever documentation and justification you can to support “deviating” from the framework. Deviations are sometimes accepted, but only with sufficient justification.
11. Identify in good faith. That is always the expectation here. Any user who shows a pattern of random, intentionally wrong, or “joke” IDs is at risk of having their account suspended.
12. Honour the observer’s intention. If the observation shows a photo of an Elephant with its toe touching a daisy, and the observer indicates they are interested in the daisy - then don’t add identifications for the Elephant. Or if the observer doesn’t add an initial identification, but chimes in later when they see the wrong thing being identified, follow their lead and identify whatever they are interested in.